by CJ Huff, Special Advisor for MSBA’s Center for Education Safety

When I was superintendent of schools in Joplin, MO, I had the unfortunate opportunity to experience a large-scale disaster up close and personal. The “Joplin Tornado” immediately brings to mind images of mass destruction, loss, pain, suffering and grief. It was a terrible tragedy that came suddenly and unexpectedly to a community of 50,000 people enjoying a Sunday afternoon in May. The immediate aftermath will go down in the history of Joplin as “the worst of times.”

However in the hours, days, weeks and years following the 2011 disaster, I was in a fortunate position to observe what can only be described as “the best of humanity.” The definition of “neighbor” meant more than just the person next door. Our neighbors literally became people from all over the globe who supported our response and recovery effort. They selflessly gave of their time, talent and treasure in meaningful ways that helped ease the pain of all that was lost.

I learned a lot from that experience. Though I have to admit when I left the superintendency in July 2015 all I wanted to do was forget what I learned, that knowledge is still with me. As your communities and schools begin the process of supporting the recovery effort I’d like to offer three thoughts from someone who has “been there” on the receiving end of all the love and support that comes on the heels of tragedy.

Do Your Homework. Shortly after a disaster it is likely the school community will utilize social media, websites, and other means to get the word out about immediate needs. Do your research and make sure that if you are going to donate, donate those things that can be of immediate use.

One Word: Cash. To put it simply, it’s easy to store and has a long shelf life. Following a large-scale disaster such as Harvey and Irma, tangible donations (clothes, furniture, food, water, etc.) pour in from all over the country. On the receiving end that means storage (which can be limited post-disaster for obvious reasons) and distribution of those resources can create significant logistical challenges and put additional strain on staff.

Better Late to Donate. Following the heartfelt giving that naturally occurs immediately after a disaster, there are long-term needs that will continue to surface for months if not years. Sometimes it is best to wait a few months then reach out to impacted communities who are at various stages in the recovery effort. Their needs may have changed and your support at that particular moment may be exactly what they need!

Without question, the people impacted by this disaster need our help. They need our hands, hearts, heads, treasures, thoughts and prayers. The road to recovery is a marathon that starts out at a sprinter’s pace with no clear finish line. It’s exhausting and full of unforeseen challenges. Like a good neighbor, our responsibility is to provide the support they need every step on that journey.